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The Myth of the Normal Curve

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Curt Dudley-Marling and Alex Gurn

It is generally taken for granted that human behavior distributes along the lines of a bell-shaped, normal curve. This idea underpins much educational theory, research, and practice. There is, however, a considerable body of research demonstrating that the normal curve grossly misrepresents the human experience. Yet the acceptance of the normal curve continues to be used to pathologize children and adults with disabilities by positioning them as abnormal. Collectively, the contributors to this volume critique the ideology of the normal curve. Some explicitly challenge the assumptions that underpin the normal curve. Others indirectly critique notions of normality by examining the impact of normal curve thinking on educational policies and practices. Many contributors go beyond critiquing the normal curve to propose alternative ways to imagine human differences. All contributors agree that the hegemony of the normal curve has had a devastating effect on those presumed to live on the boundaries of normal.

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13 The Sirens of Normative Mythology: Mother Narratives of Engagement and Resistance - Jan Valle & Susan Gabel 187

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I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron. “I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply inter- ested in helping.” “Who needs help,” . . . even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside me, beyond me. And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped. — Tillie Olsen (1961)1 And so begins the narrator’s monologue in Olsen’s (1961) short story, I Stand Here Ironing. Acclaimed by second wave feminists for its introspective depic- tion of a working-class single mother, I Stand Here Ironing grants the reader access into a nameless mother’s stream-of-consciousness response to a seemingly innoc- uous, yet impossible question. Within the visiting official’s presumably well-inten- tioned desire to help, this mother hears insinuation of blame and judgment (i.e., if you tell me what you have done or...

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